Break down creative blocks, develop visual solutions and discover ideas that push the boundaries of design by mastering mind mapping.

Mind mapping has become a breakthrough skill for designers and artists looking to tackle creative issues. It might sound like a buzzword straight out of business school, but mind mapping is being adopted by design studios as a way to take brainstorming further.

The technique was apparently invented in the 1960s by British popular psychology author Tony Buzan. It apes the way the mind works, combining creative thinking, brainstorming, problem solving and note taking.

Mind maps offer a hybrid of both words and pictures – which helps to burst through any creative block, and they are more effective than making a straightforward list.

The key thing about mind mapping is that it works in the same way that creative people do. It allows the mind to move away from restrictive linear thinking and stimulate radial thinking.

Our thoughts tend to happen in a disordered, often random manner, which can be hard to capture using a linear approach, such as list making. Linear lists force linear thinking – often people bury an idea deep in a list that could have held the key to unlocking a creative brief.

Mind mapping, on the other hand, treats all ideas as equal, and a mind map gives easy access to an idea, allowing you to link it to other thoughts. Mind mapping also works because the mind recalls key words and images far more easily than sentences and, because mind maps are more visual and depict associations between key words and images, the entire mind map is easier to recall than a page of notes.

Many designers use mind maps as a form of note-taking when initially brainstorming with clients. Mind mapping is a combination of both right- and left-brain activity – meaning it’s useful for a variety of types of team – but you need to understand how to get the best from it.

How to create a mind map

Step one: Starting out
Creative mind mapping should be fun – so you’ll need a large sheet of plain paper and some coloured pens. You’ll also need some quiet space, so turn off the iPhone, MSN and email as well.

Turn the page so it’s in landscape orientation, and then in the centre of the paper draw an image that represents your creative problem. This could be anything related to a client brief, for example, such as a product or target audience, or a good question or idea.

Think about what you want to achieve, and precisely define it. Next, clearly label the image, such as ‘Christmas’ to sum up creating a seasonal project for a client. While this is the goal, it’s OK for your brain to wander as you work on the mind map, as long as you capture your thoughts.

The point of placing the image and label in the centre of the paper is so that you have freedom to spread your thoughts out in all directions – which is more aligned to how your brain processes thoughts.

Step two: Spread your wings

Now get busy with the coloured pens, and create thick branches that stem out from the central picture and label. Each branch will become a main stream for certain types of thoughts.

There are no limits here, but mind maps traditionally comprise five to seven branches. On each branch, clearly label in capitals your main thoughts with a single word. These thoughts should come from key questions. In the case of a creative project these could be: ‘Who is this aimed at?’, ‘What visuals will be needed?’ and so on.

You may decide the label these coloured branches ‘Audience’ and ‘Elements’, for example. Make your mind map as visual as possible: make sure you use different colours, as these excite the brain and create more stimulating thinking.

You can also doodle or add reference images to the mind map as you need to – often these are more evocative than just writing the words. This will also help you develop the project’s overall feel.

Step three: Associative thinking

The next stage is to begin to expand your mind map. Start by exploring the main keyword branches, and then start to clearly write more key words that spin off from the main branch. Each becomes a sub-branch, and you can create as many sub-branches (and sub-sub-branches) that you need.

So your main branch labelled ‘Elements’ could produce sub-branches labelled ‘Festive’, ‘Red’, ‘Santa’ and so on. Keep following each sub-branch, producing new ideas that are related to the Festive branch, for example. So this branch could give rise to ‘Gifts’, ‘Holly’, and so on.

Step four: Putting it together

The final stage is to begin to link elements together, and to continue branching out ideas. When you’ve exhausted your idea bank, use coloured pens to start joining ideas together. These are used to form associations that wouldn’t have been possible if you’d relied on linear notes. Use this stage to spot new ideas or novel concepts that can kickstart your creative project.

Step five: Sharing ideas

Mind maps are great for solo brainstorming – many writers use them to develop stories and characters – but they are especially good in team environments or for groups of designers working long-distance. If a design team is working on a project from several different locations, each can create a mind map and share it when they’re finished done. This allows you to rapidly spot common ideas and themes, as well as quickly identify new thoughts rapidly, and then agree to develop them further. Always file your mind maps – they can provide a quick jump-off point for new thinking and a quick visual aid to recall your initial thoughts for a brief.

When to use mind mapping

Client brief
It might seem unusual, but use mind maps in client meetings in place of traditional note taking – they can be used to organize client goals and needs into a form that is easily remembered, and they can also provide a rapid starting point for a project.

Project management
Mind maps are great for project managers in studios – they can be used to collect all elements of a project with a top-down overview, and then link processes, deadlines, and people together to ensure speedy delivery.

Mind-map the pitch beforehand. This will be easily remembered, letting you do away with crib notes and visualize the pitch in your mind, leading to a more fluent presentation and better client interaction.

As suggested in the main article, mind maps are an excellent way to solve problems and explore creative paths without the danger of losing track of your thoughts, or failing to fully explore paths that hold creative potential.

Project budgeting
Use a mind map to brainstorm all potential elements and costs – and cost savings – in one place to help you formulate a price. Use the mind map to detail how long elements will take, or what resources – you can do this visually by, for example, making important costly tasks large and colourful, and lesser tasks plain and small.

Your Web site may be complete or interactive project launched, but use this time to mind map the project. Start with the client name, then mind map what, when, good or bad, or what you learned about a project. From this, spiral into what worked or didn’t, what needs improvement and what you’d do differently in a similar project.

Top tips for mind mapping

  • Use as many images as you can, and limit words to single keywords.
  • Start with a clear, uncomplicated image at the centre of the map that sums up the problem or goal – it needn’t be a polished sketch, a doodle will be fine.
  • Use printed letters rather than scripted characters. Capitals are memorable, but even printed lower-case letters are distinctive and easily remembered.
  • Always put keywords on lines that connect thoughts, so it builds a structure to your mind map.
  • Colour is important: use it to reinforce associations, themes and to ensure ideas stand out.
  • The rule is simple: get ideas down, get them down quick, and put them down wherever they fit – you shouldn’t hold back ideas and you shouldn’t judge or filter them.
  • Time matters. This isn’t a marathon – instead, set a time limit – creative thoughts flow much more readily when they’re working against a ticking clock.
  • Link ideas together with anything you like; arrows, lines, icons – anything that links ideas together is a good thing.
  • If you feel one branch is running dry, don’t fret: move to another branch and keep working.
  • Finally, use it to brainstorm alone – the rule is to continually connect together a stream of creative thoughts, and keep the pen firmly on the paper so you don’t get distracted.

Mind-mapping software

Free mind-mapping tool for Mac and Windows, written in Java.

Cross-platform mind-mapping software, from the creator of mind mapping Tony Buzan.

ConceptDraw MindMap
Software for Mac and Windows to create mind maps, brainstorming and organizing ideas.

Mac-only tool that offers mind-mapping and advanced diagramming.

MatchWare OpenMind
Easily log brainstorming sessions and create mind maps for Mac and Windows.

Mind mapping online

Mind map examples
A fantastic resource of mind maps that show how the process can apply to any topic – from the Harry Potter novels to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Easy to use and free online application for creating and sharing mind maps, and even printing them out.

An online mind-mapping tool that offers basic mind mapping using a Web browser for free. There are tools for collaborative mind mapping.

My Mind Map
If you want to print out a raft of mind map templates to get started, then My Mind Map has loads of free ones.

Mind Mapping
Lots of online examples and advice on how to use mind maps in a creative environment.

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